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Hold Back the Creeping Soil by Building Retaining Walls

Concrete and Masonry
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Retaining walls are designed to hold back soil. Building retaining walls to keep hills or other elevated land areas from encroaching on your home and property requires precise planning and an understanding of the forces that work to defeat human efforts.

How retaining walls function

Retaining walls differ from dams in only one aspect – what they are holding back. For constructing retaining walls, the pressure of the soil against the wall and the effects of frost and freezing are the two key elements to address in planning. Improper design will cause the wall to fail.

The pressure created by the material being held back comes from more than just the dirt - the amount of moisture in the soil must also be considered. Wet soil can weight upwards of one hundred pounds per cubic foot, and retaining walls must be strong enough to handle this load; an appropriate drainage system for your area will help with controlling moisture buildup. Local contractors will be able to provide information on this subject. In addition to the weight of the soil itself (wet or dry), anything resting on top of the wall or atop the material behind it must also be factored in.

Frost and freezing are the other consideration. As soil freezes it expands and presses against anything holding it back. Known as frost heaves, this pressure will wreak havoc on improperly constructed retaining walls. The impact of frost and freezing can be mitigated by making sure an adequate drainage system is in place. Again, local contractors are a great source for information on this subject.

Brick retaining walls

The taller the retaining wall, the greater its chances of failure because the pressure behind it increases. Because of the risk for failure, municipal codes are very specific on the materials used in relation to the height of the wall. In most areas, brick retaining walls are limited to a height of three feet. Check local codes for complete information.

When building retaining walls, especially with brick, it is best to pour a concrete foundation. This ensures that the materials will be placed on a stable, level surface and will have a consistent platform for years to come.

As mentioned before, proper drainage is critical. The area must be properly drained, not only to help reduce the buildup of pressure behind the wall, but also to make sure any water does not drain towards your home. Building a retaining wall does affect the direction of water flow. Adding properly placed weep holes in the wall will help with drainage as well.

Building retaining walls is both time and labor intensive. Because of the problems that will result from improperly planned and constructed walls, hiring a professional contractor to do the work is usually the best option. A good contractor will plan for all contingencies and construct a retaining wall that is functional, pleasing to the eye, and will last for years.

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